Sprites are these blasts of lightning from the clouds up to the ionosphere that, prior to the 80s, scientists believed were completely impossible, according to consensus.
The bolts only occurred when storms were incredibly powerful, 'ordinary' thunder storms simply wouldn't do and almost never came with them.
In two of my books (Houdini Scientist and Patent Mine) I talk about lightning some and talk around it a little more. I firmly believe that a good deal of what science knows about lightning is wrong. No, not about it being electricity, I'm talking about its origins. What powers lightning, science believes, is friction between ice crystals in the storms, which is obviously wrong because if it was true then blizzards would have more lightning than snow.
In the Nova special, they said that these super bolts from the cloud to the ground CAUSE the sprites to flash from the cloud to space.
Again, I have issues with this.
I've grown up with old cars all my life, and I remember going out on foggy mornings and looking under the hood and watching 'lightning' crackle across the warn wiring on the high voltage ignition system (10,000 volts).
Now, I'm not a scientist, mind you, but I never looked under the hood and thought "this has to be the work of friction and ice crystals", I've always thought that, "Hey, fog (clouds on the ground) sure is more conductive than dry air." We lived near high voltage transmission lines, and whenever it was foggy, they would hummm and crackle louder than on dry days, louder ever than in the rain.
To me, lightning has always been solar powered. The sun blasts the planet with a stream of charged particles. One side of the earth's atmosphere rubs against the stream and the other side rubs with it. One side of the earth's magnetic shield rubs against it and the other side rubs with it. On one side of the planet there is a massive surplus of electrons from the sun and on the other side there is a stark absence. Between these massive charges is a conductive planet made of dirt and aluminum and iron. But keeping these charges from that aluminum and dirt is a hundred miles of the best insulators ever invented, dry air. Its what allows power lines to work, but instead of just a few feat of air the planet uses dozens of miles to keep this massive charge from shorting out.
Along comes clouds, or fog that it high in the air. My contention has always been that the highly conductive nature of clouds, in addition to their massive surface area, is what allows this shorting to take place. Electrons flow from the ionosphere to the top of the cloud, usually so dispersed that sprites are not observed, until the cloud burns a bolt from the cloud to the ground.
Did you know rockets and the space shuttle routinely get hit by lightning? They do, or did. The hot gas coming out the back is more conductive than a cloud (depending on what fuel they use), and this causes them to get hit by lightning on a regular basis. Of course, it doesn't help that so many of them are launched from Florida, the lightning capital of the USA.
Back to my books.
Houdini Scientist and Patent Mine both feature a powerplant that harvests lightning, right out of cloudless skies, by firing a 'comet' of frozen super conducting 'dust' into the air, leaving miles of that conductor in their wake. Because its only a super conductor because of its frozen nature, it thaws into common dust within seconds of use and becomes inert when it falls back to the ground. The miles of super conductor also increase the yield by lowering the resistance -- most of a bolt's energy is consumed by vaporizing miles of air -- with the superconductor to ride it's like taking an ten lane interstate instead of a windy gravel back road.
Rockets reformulated their fuel to try to avoid being hit by lightning, I propose the opposite and suspect that triggering sprites on a cloudless day could be achieved with a mere ten or twenty miles of comet trail, fired from something much like a rail gun firing a dirty snowball into the sky.
Fifty years from now, children will laugh when they are told about our backward beliefs of lightning being powered by ice crystals rubbing together, and it will be accepted that lighting and sprites are interconnected with the solar winds and the ionosphere shorting their way to ground through conductive clouds.